Odds are that you’ve heard a lot about the Mediterranean Diet. You’ve heard that it’s good for you. You’ve heard that it’s healthy.
You’ve probably heard that out of all of the diets out there, it’s the best diet around. That’s all true, but what is it about the Mediterranean Diet that is unique? What is it that the people of this stunning region of the world have right that we don’t?
That’s what you’re about to find out. Read on to learn everything you need to know in this Mediterranean Diet Guide.
I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot to cover in this ultimate guide to the Mediterranean diet. You can pick your own adventure and check out the sections that are most important to you:
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet is actually an American invention. In the 1980s, two doctors from the U.S. would travel to the Mediterranean.
In their travels, they noticed that the people there lived longer and were generally healthier. They noticed some trends in how the people they came across ate, and how it compared to America.
In the 1980s, remember that the latest and greatest trend was everything was low-fat. Now, we learned many years later that low-fat was garbage. Sugar was taken out and a lovely array of chemicals were added in.
At the most basic level, the Mediterranean Diet focuses on whole foods, like almost every good diet out there. Have more fish, vegetables, legumes, and cut back on meats like chicken and red meat.
You can also have healthy fats like olive oil. A good olive oil is at the core of most Mediterranean recipes.
What about things like breads and sweets? You can have those, too. You do have to mind moderation. Same with a nice glass of red wine.
What the Mediterranean Diet Isn’t
Some people and “experts” will lead you to believe that the Mediterranean diet is restrictive. You can have this, but not that.
I see the Mediterranean diet as a good guideline as to what you should have and shouldn’t have. The thing here is that it’s up to you to be sensible.
Enjoy, but curb and moderate certain behaviors.
Where people get tripped up with the Mediterranean Diet is that you’re looking for specifics. With other diets, you’re so used to being told exactly what you can have what you can’t have, how much to have, and when to have it.
You have to follow this exact, precise plan in order to have success. You’re so used to that plan, you expect to see something similar with the Mediterranean Diet.
You don’t get that with the Mediterranean Diet. That’s one of the reasons that it’s so appealing and enjoyable. It serves as a guideline.
There aren’t specifics you can’t have this, or you can have that to the point you’re restricted in a million different ways. When you have so many restrictions, you wind up creating a neurotic, potentially unhealthy relationship with food.
It’s more like enjoy yourself but be sensible.
The part that’s tricky is learning to be sensible because given what we’ve been taught and told what’s good for us.
Our food supply is questionable at best. On average, our food travels over 1500 miles from a farm to the grocery store.
Add on top of that how food is produced and how food is marketed, it can be hard to know what is sensible and what is sensible.
Hell, when I was a kid, I was told that cereals full of sugar were part of a sensible diet.
Relearning How to Eat
Part of the process with the Mediterranean Diet is relearning or learning what a sensible diet is and what it looks like.
Even with our food pyramid, we’ve been told one thing because of corporations, lobbyists, and corporate agriculture used their influence to put certain items to be more prominent in the food pyramid that should not have been there.
So, we have to undo what we’ve been taught and relearn what it means to eat well and realize what a sensible meal is and what a sensible diet looks like. In reality, what you’re doing is that you’re recreating a diet that has worked for generations.
For many people, like in my case, for example, my great-grandparents came from a small village in southern Italy. Your ancestors might have come from Greece or elsewhere.
In a sense, we’re going back to our roots. We’re exploring the forgotten when we connect with the Mediterranean Diet.
Even when I lived in Spain, the Mediterranean Diet was being touted as a healthy diet for people to adopt.
The reason why was because so many people were getting fatter. Obesity rates were exploding.
Here’s what happened. Spaniards were introduced to crap food, courtesy of places you’re familiar with – BK, McDonald’s Dunkin Donuts, etc. Plus, sweets became more processed.
I remember going to an ice cream place for homemade ice cream. They had the best ice cream around. They also sold the crap ice cream that didn’t melt right away, even when it was 35 degrees Celsius at night.
Pretty ironic, isn’t it?
So even people on the Mediterranean are looking for ways to eat healthier because as we can see, what we’ve done isn’t working. It’s becoming more wide spread, and it’s to everyone’s detriment. Well, everyone except the stockholders.
The bottom line is that you get to learn what a sensible diet is without the restrictions. There are nights when you can have ice cream. It doesn’t mean that you should have a bowl of ice cream every night, but have it every now and again.
Make it good ice cream and enjoy it. If you’re gonna do it, do it right.
That’s one of the problems with what we eat – we want to have ice cream all of the time, and we look for products that will help us justify our choices.
We’ll have sugar free ice cream. Guess what? That has more crap in it and is worse for you.
It’s not easy, so how to you do that?
The first is portion control. In the U.S., we equate our portion sizes to value. When you go out to eat and you get a huge portion, you think that the restaurant was awesome because you got a great deal.
Your portion sizes need to be adjusted. Precision Nutrition has a wonderful guideline that shows you what a good portion guideline looks like.
The second thing to do is adjust how you eat. Do you eat in front of the TV? Do you shovel food in your mouth? Do you even chew?
You could be consuming way more calories because of how you eat. You could follow the Mediterranean Diet guidelines perfectly, but if you shovel food in your mouth, you’re kind of missing the point.
How you eat is just as important, if not more important, as what you eat. Say that out loud.
Part of the Mediterranean lifestyle is that you rarely have people eating fast or in their cars.
In cultures across the Mediterranean, food is to be enjoyed and shared with others. I see it as a celebration of life.
In your daily life, eat at the table, turn the TV off. Put on some nice music. Enjoy the people you’re eating with. If you’re like me and live by yourself, set up a special place in your home to eat and enjoy your amazing meals.
Cultural History of the Mediterranean Diet
I don’t say this as an expert, but I say this as someone who’s lived in Spain and experienced the Mediterranean lifestyle first-hand.
Here’s what I know for sure. I experienced a very small sliver of what it means to be living the Mediterranean lifestyle.
It’s also about enjoyment. We have completely forgotten the lost art of enjoying food.
There are a couple of reasons why this cultural piece is so important to me personally.
It’s about connection. It’s a connection to my past living in Spain. It’s a connection to my childhood, growing up in an Italian American home in New Jersey.
I’ve lived in places that were primarily tourist destinations, such as Hawaii and Spain. Tourism isn’t bad. However, what I saw was a deterioration of the culture and traditions that made people want to visit the destinations to begin with.
As those things eroded, important pieces of living history were lost.
I see the potential of that happening with the Mediterranean Diet. It’s very easy to say just use olive oil, throw lemon, chickpeas, and feta on it and it’s Mediterranean.
No. Just no.
That kind of homogenization just glosses over the past and rich traditions to make it easy to understand. It can also be confusing to people because it becomes easy to think of the Mediterranean as one, singular culture.
It’s many, many cultures. Think of it this way. There are more than a dozen countries that are along the Mediterranean. Each country has a very rich history that goes back centuries.
What are the Mediterranean countries? You probably started with Italy, Spain, Greece, and Israel. Malta and Cyprus are islands in the Mediterranean. Here are countries you need to include:
France, Monaco, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Syria, Turkey, Slovenia, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria.
Portugal is considered to be a Mediterranean country, even though it’s technically not on the Mediterranean. Yes, Portuguese food will be explored here, too.
Within each country are regions and towns with their own traditions and identities. These deserve to be celebrated and honored. That’s what I seek to do with this site. I see it as a responsibility to preserve that history and to share it.
We’re going to explore the Galician culture of Northern Spain through Southern Portugal. The hearty foods of Northern Italy will be contrasted with the light, summer fare of the South.
Of course, it’s about the food. It’s always about the food.
Getting Started on the Mediterranean Diet
OK, so now that you get a bit about the history and background of the diet, how do you get started?
Start by going through your cabinets and getting rid of hyper-processed foods. Those are going to high in added sugars, chemicals, and things you can’t pronounce.
Now make a list for your next order from the grocery store. Here are some things to always have in stock and keep well.
Legumes: Lentils, garbanzo beans, cannellini beans, and yellow split peas are good to have on hand.
Seafood: Cod, scallops, shrimp, and clams are often available (and on sale) and keep well in the freezer.
Fruits and veggies: Each recipe is going to call for a variety of fruits and veggies. When you’re just starting out, get what you love to eat. Buy as fresh and as local as possible. Choose a variety and keep your fridge colorful and pretty.
Dairy: Eggs, milk, some cheese like fresh mozzarella or Manchego. If you don’t know much about the different cheeses of the Mediterranean, start by buying a little bit from different areas around the region. You’ll quickly discover which ones you like and don’t like.
Wheat and Grains: Couscous, quinoa, polenta, rice, whole-grain bread. That brings us to a commonly asked question.
Can You Have Bread on the Mediterranean Diet?
Yes, you can enjoy bread while on the Mediterranean Diet. Bread has been a sustaining part of Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years. Like everything else on the Mediterranean Diet, enjoy it, be sensible, and do it with moderation.
Spices: Oregano, salt, pepper, basil, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin, coriander, saffron, sage, bay leaves, parsley, cilantro. You may prefer to get some of these as needed or grow them on your own. You can’t beat fresh herbs.
Olive Oil: This is a must-have in your pantry. You don’t need a gallon jug of olive oil. Get a size of fresh olive oil that’s just enough for a few weeks. Then you can replace it as you go to keep the oil from getting rancid.
Red wine: Yes, you can have red wine on the Mediterranean Diet. It’s always wise to keep a couple of bottles of wine in stock. You never know when you’re going to need it.
This isn’t a huge list that’s overwhelming. It’s enough to get your started and thinking about how you shop for groceries.
Don’t Forget About Activity
One thing that’s often overlooked in the Mediterranean lifestyle/diet is activity.
That’s a part of life. Most cities and towns along the Mediterranean were built for walking. Everything is easily accessible. You can walk to the grocery store, the butcher, the fish store, the produce stand, restaurants, etc.
Not only that, but in southern territories along the Mediterranean are largely agricultural regions where physical labor is more common.
It’s the exact opposite in the U.S. America was built for driving. Think about it for a minute – most people can’t really do anything without a car.
I haven’t owned a car for three years and can attest to that. I’m fortunate enough to live in a downtown area, but a lot of things are challenging because of transportation.
On the plus side, I walk everywhere.
Physical activity needs to be taken into account if you plan to use the Mediterranean Diet for weight loss. You have to move to lose.
If you need a good starting point, this article shows you how to start your own walking plan.
About Happy Mediterranean Life
I thought I’d add a few things about this site and what I promise to you as a reader and fellow food-explorer.
These are the core things I want you to learn and apply in your life:
- Easy recipes
- Learning how to eat
- Feel inspired by food
- Have fun in the kitchen
- Feel like you’re relaxed and living on the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean Diet can serve as a catalyst for eating better and creating a better relationship with food.
The Key Mediterranean Guide Takeaways
There is a lot to digest (no pun intended) when you’re learning about the Mediterranean Diet. There are a couple of important takeaways here.
The first is that the Mediterranean Diet isn’t strict. It’s a guideline. You experiment and make up the rules as you go.
The second takeaway is that how you eat is just as important as what you eat. Use your meals as a time to connect with those around you and savor the incredible flavors of cultures around the region.
The third takeaway is that the Mediterranean is made up of many cultures and traditions. There’s so much more to the Mediterranean Diet than olive oil, chickpeas, and feta.
Are you ready to get started on the Mediterranean Diet? Sign up for the Mediterranean Diet Startup Guide today.